April 08, 2021

Welcome to Spring!

March was replete with lookbacks and milestone markers acknowledging the one-year anniversary of the events when COVID became “real” for each of us. While we might recognize a different day or a specific moment as the beginning of this new reality, together, we have shared a collective historical experience that was also deeply personal.

There were two distinct moments that made the gravity of the situation apparent to me and made me aware of the flexibility that would be required in the days to come, as a mother and as the head of a healthcare agency.  

First was the shocking jolt of our first COVID-related employee death at one of our state hospitals. Amidst the furious and intense planning and pivoting of every element of service delivery, this news was a heart-breaking lesson that even in our efforts to serve, this virus would not spare our DBHDD team members. Protecting and supporting our staff came sharply into focus for our leadership team.

At home, like parents all around the state, our transition to a remote school presented some challenges. When my teenagers' remote learning system crashed on the first morning, we had a flurry of family activity to address this problem. What was this like for the parents of a five-year-old? Or a ten-year-old?  I know that our team members and providers have navigated very difficult and time-consuming academic support activities right alongside work demands. Indeed, COVID began to feel very real.

For many of us, the altered existence that started a year ago continues. If you are an “essential worker” like our hospital or Community Integration Home staff, the intensity of your work has remained consistent and persists today. For others who pivoted to a largely “virtual” work environment, you may be still in that mode, or perhaps inching towards a hybrid model, with some in-person activities. Your family life may also continue to be constrained or curtailed in meaningful ways. Regardless of your current arrangements, recognizing the duration and impact of the pandemic on all of our lives is important.

In our April newsletter, we are taking an opportunity to reflect on the last twelve months. This allows us to acknowledge important losses, and address some of the feelings of chaos and isolation, and grief that we experienced. It also allows us to celebrate our resiliency, consider the lessons we learned, and to think creatively about how this experience will help us better shape the future of service delivery for people with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, as well as mental health and substance use issues across the life span. We know that there were vital adaptations in our hospitals and among our community providers around the state. Now, there are important conversations about which of these can and should be maintained.

My own lookback has two overriding themes: gratitude and hope.

First and foremost, my gratitude is to the DBHDD staff, especially our hospital teams and others required to continue serving in 24/7 settings. I deeply admire and appreciate your dedication and your commitment to public service. I know your service to our state over the last 12 months required a tremendous amount of courage, ingenuity, and personal sacrifice. The time you took to think about the impact of the virus on our state and how DBHDD may be best positioned to serve—resulting in the development of the COVID Emotional Support Line and the 2x2 series to provide support to healthcare and other frontline workers—inspired me to be a better leader. You are nothing short of heroes, and your dedication gave me hope to run on even in the direst of circumstances.

I am also thankful for the fearless leaders of DBHDD that have been in daily contact with me and each other since the pandemic began; I have relied on each of you, and your advice and guidance has been indispensable to me. Over the last 12 months, the success of Georgia’s public safety net counted on you to be smart, strong, and nimble. You have been that and more.

I am grateful for the support we received from Governor Kemp and his team as we found ourselves navigating an unprecedented catastrophe, too. Throughout the challenging early months, in particular, our hospitals were treated as priority healthcare settings, which was vital to our ability to continue serving Georgia’s most vulnerable residents, and that level of support continues today. This support ran throughout the entire executive branch of government. Crucial partnerships with our sister agencies--especially Commissioner Berry and his team at the Department of Community Health and Dr. Toomey and the DPH team—and the National Guard—made it possible to keep our safety net doors open and continue to BE DBHDD to Georgia’s most vulnerable residents living with mental illness and intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Finally, I feel fortunate for the support of our provider network over the last 12 months. We learned a great deal from you all about flexibility, adaptability, and communication strengths we didn’t know we had. Most importantly, I think the pandemic has brought us closer together in our mission to serve—I am proud that we have such dedicated partners—and we will be working hard to preserve those gains.

Hope has been a sustaining factor for me these last 12 months. The arrival of spring is always a harbinger of better days ahead, but this year, it coincides with reductions in COVID positivity rates and availability of the vaccine across Georgia. These facts fuel my optimism. Every heartbreaking loss or sacrifice was matched by an act of heroism and courage that revealed the strength of the human spirit—the DBHDD spirit—and it gave me hope that together, we would make our way to better days. I would not have predicted that we were this adaptable and resilient. These strengths we have built over the last 12 months are necessary for the work ahead.

Speaking of strength: Over the last year, there has been widespread reporting in many publications about the impact of the pandemic on our mental health and well-being. Children, adults and elderly populations have all reported increases in feelings of anxiety and depression, and substance use and overdoses have spiked. These issues are of great concern. I want to share a few reflections about this.

First, if you are experiencing these feelings, know that you are not alone. In the behavioral health business, we know that talking about these feelings and issues is part of the healing process. This reminds us of the importance of self-care and recognizing others in need, especially those close to us.

Second, there is opportunity in this moment. Our elected leaders in Georgia have taken notice of this particular impact of the pandemic and responded with increases in funding for behavioral health. The federal government is sending support to states as well.

This is a watershed moment where the public at large has recognized that mental health and well-being is intimately tied to our overall health. DBHDD’s role as Georgia’s public safety net is to deploy funds and resources to serve our most vulnerable citizens and to lift up the message that mental illness is real…and so is recovery!

I invite you to seize this moment and opportunity for optimism with me. As we do this work, one thing rings true: whatever we do, we do in partnership with others. As we reimagine our service delivery system emerging from the pandemic, we invite you to remain an ally on this journey.

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